GRAFTON — Nestled in Ozaukee County, Grafton is as about as tranquil as any of the more far-flung suburbs ringing the city of Milwaukee.
Thirty-two years ago, however, the small village was home to one of the biggest controversies southeastern Wisconsin has ever seen.
And it all had to do with a library.
In 1987, village of officials began a campaign to raise money for a much-needed new library.
The Grafton Organization for Library Donations, a group of a citizens tasked with collecting the funds, kicked off the effort, according to the Ozaukee County Guide, by allowing donors of various amounts to name the new library’s rooms, wings and eventually the building itself.
The right to name the library went to the first person(s) to donate $250,000 toward the $1 million price tag for the new building: Theodore and Benjamin Grob.
Swiss-born industrialists in their 80s known for their support of right-wing causes, the local businessmen quickly landed on a name: the USS Liberty Memorial Public Library in honor of the U.S. naval vessel attacked by Israel off the Sinai Peninsula in June 1967. This was during the Six Day War, when Israel was in a fast-moving conflict with Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
To some, the name seemed like a harmless homage to the 34 American sailors killed in the attack, but the proposal quickly sparked concern in the Milwaukee Jewish community.
Although Israel apologized for the assault, calling it a case of miscommunication to the victims and the U.S. government, to some, especially survivors who formed the USS Liberty Veterans Association, Israel’s intentions in the attack were an open issue. Uncovering the “truth” of the attack continues to be the central mission of the USS Liberty Veterans Association, despite multiple congressional investigations that failed to yield any evidence that the attack was made with knowledge that the target was a U.S. ship.
Speaking to the “Ozaukee County Guide” in March 1988, Rabbi Gideon Goldenholz of Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue in Mequon said the name felt like an insult to the Jewish community.
“I don’t know what the motives are. If somebody made an offer of all kinds of funds, and the stipulation would be that they rename it Hiroshima, I wouldn’t think it would be in the best interest of the institution, especially a public institution,” Gidenholz said. “I don’t see any way of approaching this, other than to speak toward its morality and underlying attitude. It is a matter of insult that can be directed at the Jewish community, and at those who are supportive of the state of Israel.”
But it wasn’t just the leader of the village’s closest synagogue that was troubled by the name.
Soon the Milwaukee Jewish Council was sending letters to then-Grafton Village President James Grant, voicing its concern. Other groups, Jewish and otherwise, also joined the debate. As did those who felt that supporters of the name were being unfairly singled out as being antisemitic.
The story gained such wide attention that even the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune ran stories about the dispute. Local newspapers covering the story soon began receiving letters on the issue from across the country.
The then-state superintendent of public instruction, Herbert J. Grover, also entered the fray, urging the village to re-examine its choice.
Few Grafton residents spoke out against the name themselves, but there was a small petition drive aimed at having the name changed, and The Grafton Education Association withdrew its commitment to raise $10,000 for the library because of the name selection.
Theodore Grob defended the brothers’ choice for the name, say- ing the moniker was merely meant to honor the lives of the 34 service-men killed in the attack.
Reacting to Rabbi Gidenholz’s comments, Grob said “I think people have no business to have a reaction like that if they are patriotic Americans.”
Grob told the Ozaukee County Guide that he became interested in the ship after reading “Assault on the Liberty,” a book on the attack penned by a retired naval officer wounded in the attack that claimed to tell the “true story” of ill-fated mission.
“It was a major cover-up, because they tried to sink the ship,” Grob said, referencing the naval officer’s account. “They (the Unit- ed States and Israel) not only covered it up, but these people received no recognition.”
Assisting the Milwaukee Jewish Council in their efforts to have the name changed, the Anti-Defamation League noted that “the unfortunate USS Liberty incident” had been used as a political tool by antisemites and “right-wing extremists,” including the now-defunct Liberty Lobby, the still somewhat-active Institute for Historical Review, and the former Christian Defense League.
Today, the story of the USS Liberty, and the suburban library that bears its name, are rarely in the spotlight.
Nevertheless, the library remains a draw for the few remaining USS Liberty survivors, as well others with latent or obvious antisemitic beliefs.
Library Director Jon Hanson, who joined the USS Liberty Memorial Library’s staff in the late 1990s — about 10 years after the building was constructed and named — said he has learned a lot about the history of the building’s name.
“I have a drawer full of a lot of letters to the editors,” Hanson said. “We keep quite a file about the history on it. If you talk to different people, they will have different opinions on the USS Liberty attack. It still ignites passions every once in a while.”
The library has a display dedicated the history of the downed vessel that it keeps in a meeting room, and survivors of the ship still come now and then to look at the artifacts.
“It has a part of the ship and a bell. We are actually the official depository, but it is just a few things that we keep in display cases — some of the scrapbooks, where they clipped articles,” Hanson said.
But Hanson said he has aware that the display can attract interest from people who may have antisemitic beliefs.
Hanson said he learned from the village’s former president to steer clear of those people: “He said, ‘some of people who come to look at the stuff, they are really antisemitic,’ and that ‘you just learn to keep your distance from them’.”
While it bothers him that the library can be a magnet for such beliefs, Hanson said most of the people who come to the library to visit the historical display aren’t extremists.
“You can tell their sentiments; most of it is fair-minded. They may have different viewpoints, but usually they just come and look,” he said.